Bullying: PTAs as Catalyst for Change

This article, written by Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas, originally appeared in the June/July 2012 California State PTA newsletter. Not In Our Town has partnered with CAPTA to work together to address bullying and intolerance in schools throughout California. Dr. Cohn-Vargas is the director of Not In Our School and an experienced educator.

We hear a lot about bullying, but do we ever stop to really think about what it is and the consequences of bullying? After all, isn't just kids being kids, a part of growing up? Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully among others may have serious, lasting problems.

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Bullying can affect people in many ways. Some may lose sleep or feel sick. Students may want to skip school. Some may even be thinking about suicide.

The impact that bullying has on students, chronicled in the recent film Bully, demands a bold response. The emotional trauma and poor academic performance documented in the film is experienced by millions of children every day, and sometimes even leads to suicide. The PBS documentary Not In Our Town: Class Actions showcases an award-winning student-led Not In Our School (NIOS) anti-bullying program that reached 50,000 students in Lancaster, California. After two teen suicides occurred within 50 miles of Lancaster, bullying was not something school leaders could ignore.

The story shows how an entire community unified to say "Not In Our School." PTAs can be the catalyst for partnerships of students, parents and educators to create real change.

Not In Our School is more than a program; it is a movement that tackles both bullying and intolerance. While bullying is a behavior that must be curtailed, intolerance is like a virulent infection, spread through the influence of peers, family, teachers, and coaches, but also through the media, music, and the Internet. To address this effectively, a sustained community-wide campaign is needed that will:

  • Recognize, respond, and educate about bullying and intolerance;
  • Create opportunities for open dialogue;
  • Encourage bystanders to become "upstanders," speaking up to safeguard themselves and others; and
  • Foster welcoming environments that take the concept of a "safe" school to a new level where all students' voices, identities, and backgrounds are valued.

The stakes are enormous. California has passed anti-bullying legislation, but only a system-wide plan to address bullying and intolerance will affect lasting change. PTA is poised to actively engage in this anti-bullying movement and reach millions of children in ways that will influence their entire lives.

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